Quantum Obscenity, and the networking of desire

A good, if a little vague, article by Maureen Freely in Saturday’s Guardian brings together two recent news stories in an examination of our changing attitudes to children, art and sexual offences: the arrest of Roman Polanski for a 1977 assault on a minor (on which Steve Lopez writes convincingly, and approvingly, in the LA Times) and the removal of an artwork by Richard Prince from the Tate’s new Pop Life exhibition.

The artwork in question is a reproduction of a 1975 fashion photo of a nude, oiled and heavily made-up 10-year-old Brooke Shields – the same child who appeared naked on celluloid at 12 in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (available on Amazon), and at 15 in a TV jeans ad with the strapline: “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” (Christopher Turner has a good history of the piece in the same newspaper.)

There’s no question as to the artistic merit of the piece: Prince’s appropriation is a direct questioning of sensuality versus sexuality, of the morality of art and the placing of responsibility for interpretation (Its title, “Spiritual America”, refers to an Alfred Stieglitz photograph of a gelded horse, referencing the breakdown of discussion of sexuality in society). Does the offence, the implicit lust, reside with the artwork, or the viewer? The Metropolitan Police are clear on the issue, or at least, on their opinion of the issue.

The actual, legal obscenity of the image resides in a quantum state, neither obscene nor unobscene. No complaints have been received, yet the Police acted because it “could be viewed as sexually provocative”, it “could break obscenity laws”, the actions of the officers “were ‘common sense’ and were taken to pre-empt any breach of the law” [Source]. Such tactics are distressingly common amongst our Puritan lawgivers, who know that such cases are rarely tested, and when they are, they frequently fail.

In short, it is a bullying tactic, requiring the same justification of judicial pre-eminence as harrassing blameless bystanders and photographers in the street; assaulting legitimate protestors, and retaining the very genetic code of the proven innocent; and allowing the Police to bowdlerise public exhibitions which have preceded without controversy elsewhere. It is to be hoped that the Tate, following legal advice, will reinstate the exhibit, but the situation is currently unclear.

The dire state of our Obscenity laws, which we have discussed previously, apparently require the law to act whatever the morality, ethics, or artistic repercussions of the issue at hand. But they ignore the realities of the modern situation. Darryn Walker’s story, which prompted the last, failed test case, and is pretty much without doubt a case of extreme pornography, has apparently, and recently, been removed from its original repository, but is still easily available online (usual NSFW warnings apply). Likewise, Prince’s artwork is not hard to find online.

What is the correct response when an artistic work is removed from a gallery – a moderated, curated space, accessible only to adults – but visible to anyone with an internet connection? The networked world allows us to side-step such restrictions, without regard to the laws (or perceived laws) of our locality. Art, digitised, evades the censor, but is denied its rightful place in its true home.

Posted October 5, 2009 by James Bridle. Comments Off on Quantum Obscenity, and the networking of desire

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